Biden was barreling toward perilous political waters. Then Afghanistan happened.
Joe Biden’s approval numbers are slipping. The majority of surveys show Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track. Democrats fear the White House has faltered in getting out its message on core agenda items.
And that was before the horrific scenes began to unfold in Afghanistan.
The cataclysmic series of events over the last several days marked the most devastating period of the Biden presidency, and it comes at the precise moment when a growing number of Americans were already fearful of inflation and doubting Biden’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy. Now, Biden’s credibility on the world stage is on the line.
It all adds up to a troubling political scenario for Democrats, who had held up their president as a seasoned international statesman, the “adult in the room” who promised to reverse what they viewed as the reckless policies of former President Donald Trump.
Republicans are moving quickly to try and ensure the foreign policy blunder sticks, in an attempt to undermine one of Biden’s core political selling points — his steady hand — and to bludgeon down-ballot candidates in tough districts who believe the best way for their party to hold power is to pitch themselves as “Biden Democrats.”
“The attention span of Americans now is short. But they will make a lasting judgement about the fall of Afghanistan before the next something bright and shiny comes along,” said Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist and former George W. Bush political guru. “The view that President Biden bolluxed this badly, gave our enemies a big win, consigned 39 million people to barbarism and diminished America’s credibility and standing in the world — those will remain. It will be impossible for President Biden to wash this stain away.”
The White House and some Democrats insist the American public has long since lost interest in the war in Afghanistan, and support the withdrawal. But a new Morning Consult/POLITICO poll suggests the chaos surrounding the U.S. military departure is worrying voters, although a majority of Democrats still support the withdrawal.
More perilous for Biden, according to one swing state pollster, Americans are now suddenly tuning into Afghanistan, after ignoring the conflict there for years, rarely even mentioning it as a concern in surveys. They likely aren’t aware that Trump had brokered a deal with the Taliban that Biden is now implementing.
“Obviously, this week we are all intensely focused on what’s going on there,” said Charles Franklin, the chief pollster of the Marquette Poll in Wisconsin. “Foreign policy was supposed to be a real strength of Biden’s. This is a failure that undermines that supposed strength.”
The thunderclap of converging setbacks — marked in recent hours by the searing images of hordes of Afghans literally chasing planes on the tarmac and clasping their arms around jet bridgeways as they await a way out of the country — has stoked resentment abroad and raised doubts about Biden’s ability to manage unfolding crises abroad and at home.
“What we’re seeing unfold in Afghanistan is Saigon on steroids,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) “We have an administration focusing on a press release surrounding the anniversary of 9/11 and not focusing on requisite planning to withdraw in an orderly fashion, leaving American interests intact, leaving our allies in Afghanistan safe, not allowing a hotbed of terrorists to erupt in our country.”
White House and administration officials concede the fall of the Afghan government happened much faster than they anticipated, though Democrats stressed that a full-scale takeover by the Taliban was not an inevitability. They argue that America long ago completed its mission of hunting down terrorists and preventing the next 9/11, and that little would have changed in the wind down absent a massive troop surge that neither Biden nor the American people were willing to stomach. The president’s supporters also are trying to reframe the pullout as an act of bravery by a realist who knew there would be political fallout but was unwilling to bear the costs of continued inaction.
In an address Monday, Biden presented that same case, focusing his remarks on the decision to retreat from Afghanistan to save American lives and taxpayer dollars.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.”
Biden acknowledged the U.S. was blindsided by the Taliban’s swift seizure of the nation and proclaimed the “buck stops with me,” but in his remarks, he sidestepped the mayhem that has ensued amid the much-criticized execution of the withdrawal.
The speech in the East Room marked the president’s first public comments on the quickly deteriorating situation on the ground since the White House issued a lengthy written statement on Saturday. He traveled from Camp David to the White House to deliver the remarks, then quickly returned to the presidential retreat. In the meantime, the administration has relied on a rotating cast of Cabinet officials and foreign policy advisers to make the case for the president and laying the blame for any failures on Trump and the Afghans.
Those talking points, however, have failed to quell concerns from down-ballot Democrats, who were already fearful of a bruising midterm given the historical headwinds for the party that controls the White House. History — exacerbated by redistricting and tougher new voting laws being advanced by Republican state lawmakers — is not in their favor.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), an Air Force veteran, panned a “failed military and diplomatic strategy.” Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a State Department alum, bemoaned the lack of “deep roots” of the Afghan National Security Forces and called it “a failure by both parties over the years.” And Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a retired Naval commander, said the time would come to “grapple with the failures that led to the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.”
House Democrats made no secret of their plan to cling frantically to Biden’s popularity in their bid to hold onto their majority. In a closed-door meeting in July, Democratic Congressional Campaign Chair Sean Patrick Maloney warned that the off-year polling was not strong and that vulnerable members needed to do more to tie themselves to Biden’s agenda.
Any hit to the president himself potentially weakens that plan — as Republicans gleefully pointed out.
“Every president faces seminal tests that become clarifying moments for the public, and this may be just that for President Biden,” said Dan Conston, the president of House Republicans’ top super PAC. “The president and his administration have failed the basic test of leadership and competency in such a profound way that it’s almost certainly going to contribute to his already declining approval rating.”
“The DCCC’s advice that vulnerable Democrats should run as ‘Biden Democrats’ is looking worse by the hour,” added Michael McAdams, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The White House has consistently pointed to public polling to bolster its overall case that the president’s priorities — trillions of spending on Covid-19 relief, infrastructure and social programs are popular.
But the reliance on surveys so far out from the election doesn’t account for the emerging fears about the economy and inflation, and the fact that many of those policies have yet to face sustained attacks.
“I’ve been astonished by their reliance on polls, leading them to say ‘Don’t worry about $3.5 trillion’” in spending when they have yet to encounter any real pushback, Rove said. “It’s idiotic, because both political reporters and the American people are more sophisticated than that.”
Franklin, the Wisconsin pollster, noted that voters are citing inflation as a concern “in a way that it hasn’t been in the last 15 to 20, 30 years.”
And that concern is layered atop of what’s looming this fall — the possibility of school closures because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant, bitterly divisive wars over mask and vaccine mandates and exponential growth of hospitalizations amid vaccine resistance.
With 14 months until the midterms, it’s not clear how much the botched departure in Afghanistan will be top of mind for the average voter — if they cared much about it at all.
But it has caused clear fractures between Biden and a group of House Democrats with national security experience who were elected in 2018. Those members have been singularly focused on helping to evacuate U.S. citizens and allies stranded in Kabul, but they also expressed disdain over the lack of adequate planning.
“Certainly it will require American troops, more troops than we had before President Biden made this decision,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said, of securing Kabul’s airport. “Let the irony of that sink in.”
“The question here is whether this is going to be Saigon or Dunkirk?” he told reporters during a Monday briefing. “Are we going to leave people behind as we did in South Vietnam or are we going to hold the beach until everybody is taken off that beach? I hope it’s the latter.”
Meridith McGraw contributed to this report.
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